Mountain Turnpike twists through dense oak, hickory and spruce trees and keeps winding, like a slithering snake, through the mountains that separate Virginia and West Virginia. But on a clear day, looking south from the Monongahela National Forest, what looks like a giant white Lego structure emerges from this sea of green.
And that's about when it starts. Your cell phone drops reception. Your radio spins, unable to pull up any stations. You can shake your phone all you want, but it won't help. If you're a city slicker accustomed to continuous connectivity, you might start to panic.
Keep driving and hook onto the Potomac Highlands Trail toward that magnificent structure. You eventually reach Green Bank, population 143, best known as The Quietest Town in America. Where cell phones and wireless devices are banned, their use potentially prosecutable by law.
Technology is constantly changing how we live and communicate. But in Green Bank, it is the presence of some of the most sophisticated technology on Earth that preserves this rural enclave, a throwback town to yesteryear.
About this series
Great American Stories is an occasional series on the unexpected places and unforgettable characters that help define the country.
This is where you come to get away from the United States. Here, instant connectivity is extinct. Even microwaves are frowned upon by the region's scientists.
It's not that people are backward or fearful of technology. Quite the opposite.
Tucked in the Allegheny Mountains, researchers are listening to exploding galaxies at the edge of the universe -- a signal that is so faint, it's about a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt.
A cell phone emits about 3 watts and can swamp the sounds that are teaching astronomers how the Milky Way was formed and how it is still evolving. So, cell phone use is limited in the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square mile area that limits radio frequency in the eastern half of West Virginia and parts of Virginia, stretching to the Maryland border.
The quiet zone gets drastically more restrictive the closer you get to Green Bank, home to the world's largest steerable radio telescope, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
The main telescope weighs 17 million pounds, spans about 2 acres wide and stretches 485 feet into the air. Several smaller telescopes are sprinkled around it amid 2,700 acres of parkland. Leave your phone and digital camera behind.
The telescope can hear sounds from hundreds of millions of miles away and attracts some of the leading researchers in the world.
"What we have here is an amazing combination of a very rural atmosphere with extremely high technology," says Jay Lockman, the principal scientist of the Green Bank Telescope.
"If you want to hear quiet noises, you need to keep the noise down."
He laughs when quizzed about the lack of cell phone usage here. "For the last 5,000 years, human beings have managed to flourish without this," he says, "so to me it seems a little odd that people now find the absence of cell phones something worth discussing."
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